“So You Want Poor People to Starve?”

Inequality Part 1

Inequality exists everywhere—between and within nations, states, different age cohorts, individuals in a classroom, and individuals within a family. This can be in biological differences in phenotype, how far one lies on the spectrum of personality traits, the background one comes from in terms of wealth, or a person’s innate or cultivated athletic or creative abilities. If there were no inequality, there wouldn’t be bar and pie charts, at least not very interesting ones to look at. There wouldn’t be sports competitions to go crazy over, or dance competitions and so on to enjoy. There would be no bell curves. In fact, I’m not sure that the world would be an interesting place to live in if there were no variation. All trees would look the same. All the earth around the world would be the same color. Fundamentally, I can’t even imagine a universe coming into being without different degrees of different things arranging themselves in different ways.

I bring this up because people seem to be content with this realization of inequality in general but not when it comes to human beings. Inherent inequality is either denied in sensitive topics or denied in the logical conclusion that inherent inequality would result in different outcomes based on what trait is needed to succeed in a certain field. Or perhaps one accepts it theoretically but not how it plays out in real life. This philosophical contradiction is important because this is the hierarchy that we are involved in but not objective about. So, people may conclude that inequality is only a result of greedy human nature. But even if all things were equal, if there were no corruption, no barriers to overcome in anyone’s life, or all people had the same level of difficulty in upbringing, there would still be inequality. Inequality is a part of life and nature, and nature is absolutely full of competition. Despite this fact, the results of inherent inequality are difficult to accept.


What Does “Inequality” Mean Here?

Inequality of income and wealth seem to be the primary focus and concern in these conversations. When I type inequality into the Google search bar, this understanding of inequality pops up the most in search results other than strict definitions. For example, the people who run inequality.org work to “help end economic inequality in the United States and abroad.” Inequality is often placed in the context of a challenge or something to battle, the evil dragon in human nature and society that needs to be slain.

The first thing I would take from this, is that living in societies where there is great inequality is less desirable. That is why so many people want to end it. Charities wouldn’t exist if they didn’t. And I’ve heard the accusation of: “So you want poor people to starve?” repeated often, or something along those lines. I think it wouldn’t be said except to wound the ego or sense of compassion of those who do care. I would additionally assume that there are individuals who are not comfortable with inequality in all income brackets. This could be out of a sense of altruism and compassion, a fear of social unrest when there is inequality, or the belief that everyone has the same level of contribution to society just on the basis of an innate sense of self-worth, so they all deserve the same things. I will not argue against that, but I will argue against the position that this means that individuals who are better off owe it to others to make sure they end up at the same place in life, and especially argue against a conclusion that it is okay to force others to do this. I would make a distinction between those who cannot take care of themselves and those who can. People require resources to exist. They are expensive. And those who make a lot, I personally think, can help others. But I still don’t think others should be forced to subsidize the existence of other people. I am going to have to make the statement many times that I am a big fan of charity. I was involved in charity throughout high school in Jamaica. I have had others help me when I needed it. This is not a polemic on the less fortunate or those in need of help. I simply think people are unwilling to face the reality of how fundamental inequality is to existence. I see nothing wrong with trying to change the world to make it better for others if that is what one would like to see, but I think equality may not be possible. I also disagree with certain methods of trying to get there.


How Can Good or Bad Inequality Be Measured?

Seeing as all are born with varying levels of talents as well as traits and nobody can control their initial circumstances, one could say that certain people or groups are not deserving of their income and wealth. But how is it possible  to tease apart who is lucky and who works hard, who was simply predisposed to a certain gift or skill due to genes or environment, or who made certain decisions that led them down a path that others didn’t? Is it possible to say that, no matter the varying traits, levels of productivity, or talents, each person is unique and contributing equally to the whole? I don’t think it is. Every individual is important, but individuals are rewarded based on how much value they provide to others. I am not saying that human life isn’t valuable in and of itself. However, when it comes to interacting with others, especially those who  aren’t considered kin or a part of the in-group, people will often assign value to others’ contributions. This pattern is evident for both those who are well off and those who are not. How can someone decide the limit to the amount of wealth someone else can earn? From an economic standpoint, a free market society rewards people based on how productive they are, whether their income directly correlates to how much they are producing, or how much value they are providing to others. So, I don’t think we can talk about the deserving and rearranging of funds, particularly those handed over voluntarily.


Is It Possible to Reduce Inequality?

If inequality is uncomfortable for most people but still an inevitable truth that could possibly be reduced, how can it be mitigated? One solution is getting involved in charity, directly or indirectly. But I think the best way is to encourage the development of skills or abilities that will result in individuals not needing the help of others. In desperate situations, immediate help may be necessary, but long-term solutions are the best bet. And long-term solutions go to the root of the problem, repairing the leak in the boat rather than continually bailing water out. In addition, part of me thinks that struggle is important in a person figuring out how to utilize their own resources. It’s a learning moment that allows a person to solve the problem themself. I also think support is given on an individual level, which has network effects at the group level, in families first and then communities. The remote viewing of problems on a societal level is trying to make sense of things that are complex and sometimes enabling situations rather than helping end them, which would be done by leaving people alone to become independent human beings. Maybe I just don’t understand, but I think I do—though I don’t think I know the best way to solve a nation’s problems.

My stance on the topic of inequality is that, if the ends can even be reached (which is questionable), the ends don’t justify the means. I don’t think it’s right to force someone to give away their wealth. Persuasion is possible, but I think if people want to have a society where people get along with each other, it’s important to cultivate a sense of unity and care for others. This sense of unity does not only have to show up in the face of a common threat, but isn’t it counterproductive to force charity on others rather than have them do it themselves? It robs people of the chance to actively participate in their own morality to a large degree because of the removal of choice. (This doesn’t stop people from doing more.) One might argue that this leaves others with fewer means or talents at the mercy of others, to find jobs, for example. But I don’t think that one should have control over another person’s life and path (the potential helper) and what they choose to do, even the virtue of helping others, just because something makes us feel really uncomfortable. This respect for others is more important to me than forcing others to be what a subjective ideal of what a good person looks like.

Edited by Em Solis


Become a Patron!

Part 2 of this series on inequality, the wealth gap, and discrimination is here: Inequality Series Part 2

Video version and podcast available.

JTOL is 100% Fan-Funded. Please support.